By: Nancy Berkoff RD, EdD, CCE

Snacking is part of a modern lifestyle. Very few of us have the time or desire to sit down to three square meals a day. Look around. Whether walking, driving or hanging out with friends, the average person is holding something to eat or drink.

In reality, eating many small meals throughout the day can be healthier than eating several large meals. If you space out mini-meals every couple of hours, you will tend to eat less since you will be less hungry. Small meals put less strain on your digestive system and may help to keep blood sugar and energy levels on a more consistent level.

Treat each snack as a mini-meal. That means that all the snack food you eat should count. Ask yourself if the snack foods you select have decent amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber and fluid and limited amounts of calories from fat (especially saturated fat and cholesterol), sodium or artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Good examples of snack foods that count include fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, unsweetened juices, still or sparkling water, whole-grain crackers, unsalted or low-salt pretzels, low-fat baked potato and vegetable chips and low-fat dips (such as salsa or hummus), soy and dairy yogurt, baked white and sweet potatoes and whole-grain bread products. These foods are high in the good stuff (fiber, vitamins) and low in the bad stuff (saturated fat, salt)

Unfortunately, many of these items need to be prepared at home and are not available at many coffeehouses, snack shops or other gathering places for snackers.

Fat and salt (or sodium) are biggies when it comes to snack food. Both add texture and taste to otherwise bland foods, such as potato chips. This doesn't mean that you have to resign yourself to tasteless snacks. You just need to choose products that use a minimum of fat and salt, rather than products that slather on unnecessary amounts. A small amount of fat or salt is acceptable in a snack food, depending on your health status and your overall daily intake of fat and salt.

Here's how salt can hide in the ingredient list: sea salt; sal du mer (salt of the sea), dehydrated dairy products, such as parmesan cheese, soy sauce, MSG (monosodium glutamate, used as a flavor enhancer), autolyzed yeast (not to be confused with nutrition yeast or brewers yeast, which are good products), bouillon and miso. Look on the product's nutritional label and check out the percentage of daily sodium found in the number of servings you plan to eat. If it is much beyond 3%, you will have to watch how much salt you use for the rest of the day. As a point of reference, the USDA would like healthy Americans not at risk of high blood pressure to keep their daily sodium intake at 2,200 milligrams or less.

There's fat and then there's fat. The American Heart Association would like to see people limit their total daily fat intake to 15% to 20% of daily calories. Of the fat calories eaten, a very, very small amount should be saturated fat or cholesterol, as these are the most damaging to your health. Cholesterol is found in animal products, such as egg yolks, whole-fat cheese and meats. Saturated fats are found in coconut products, tropical oils and palm oil. Two other areas of fat concern are hydrogenated fats and trans-fatty acids. These are produced by processing healthy fats, such as corn oil or safflower oil, that are naturally liquid into solid forms. Margarine is an example of hydrogenated fat that contains trans-fatty acids.

Snack items that list no cholesterol or saturated fats and less than 3% of daily values for fat on their nutrition labels are the items to select. You'll probably find ingredients such as olive oil, nut butters, canola oil, safflower oil, sesame seeds, ground nuts and sunflower oil on lower-fat, healthier snack foods.

Quick Tips
If you're concerned about total calories, here is a fast nutritional trick. If you're not certain how many calories you should eat per day, determine what your ideal weight is. You can ask your health care provider or go to various health websites to found this. Add a zero to your weight. This gives you a very rough estimateof your calorie needs for the day, depending on your activity level and health. Calories should be divided into about 55% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 15% protein per day for the healthy person. Relate this to the number of calories you allot to snack food and see how you come out.

When you look at the nutrition labels, they list nine grams of protein or five grams of fat. How can you figure out how many calories for these? Here's a quick tip used by every dietitian: All proteins have four calories/ gram, all carbohydrates have four calories/gram and all fats have nine calories/gram. For those of you that are curious, all alcohol has seven calories per gram. This is regardless of health value. For example, both olive oil and bacon fat contain nine calories per gram. What they do in the body is a different story.

So if a label says five grams of protein per serving, than you know that it has 20 calories of protein per serving (5grams x 4 calories per gram= 20 calories). Twenty grams of fat per serving translates into 180 calories (20 grams x 9calories/gram).

In a Nutshell
Snack foods should be both fun and healthy. They don't need a lot of fat or salt. Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are not necessary for an interesting product. Become a label reader and you'll find a whole world of wonderful snack foods out there.

Say yes to the following ingredients: dried fruit and vegetables, ground whole grains (oats, barley, rye), brown rice, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetable juice, soy, rice and grain milks, tofu, corn (but not corn syrup solids, which is another form of refined sugar), fruit juice concentrate, potato, nonfat dry milk, nutritional yeast, natural flavors and colors and added vitamins and minerals.Label Lingo
If you'll be purchasing rather than preparing snacks, then you must learn some label language. This will help you select snacks that will please your palate and help your health.
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